Students share how the pandemic has impacted their mental and physical health
By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — firstname.lastname@example.org
Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders and disordered eating.
The long-term effects of COVID-19 extend beyond what scientists call “long COVID.” There’s also the myriad mental health struggles, including disordered eating, that have been triggered by different aspects of the pandemic.
Although it may sound like the same expression, disordered eating is slightly different from the more commonly known phrase, eating disorder. Disordered eating is a more inclusive term that extends beyond the three eating disorders defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM).
This manual is the standard for information in psychology and psychiatry, according to the American Psychiatric Association. It categorizes psychological struggles with eating into three disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, the last of which was only added to the DSM in 2013 and is less well-researched.
Dr. Debbie Fetter, an assistant professor in UC Davis’ Department of Nutrition, said that disordered eating is more common than formally diagnosed eating disorders, and that, often, the narrow scope of eating disorders identified by the DSM limits people’s perception of what may be signs of disordered eating.
Teaching about eating disorders in a more inclusive manner is critical for identifying signs and getting help for people who need it, Fetter said.
“Right now a lot of the resources and support aren’t very inclusive when it comes to eating disorders and are not targeting all communities that are affected by eating disorders,” Fetter said. “That’s something that we need to see: we need better materials, better diagnostic tools, better awareness and better support.”
Fetter explained that, during the pandemic, many people, especially young people, have experienced disordered eating, whether their patterns are included in the DSM or not.
Surveys of hospital records show that by August of 2021, the number of adolescents admitted to hospitals for eating disorders had increased 25% since March 2020, the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) reported a 40% increase in calls to their helpline in the first year of the pandemic as well.
Another survey reported that 70% of people previously diagnosed with anorexia nervosa experienced an escalation of symptoms during the first stages of the pandemic, while, at the same time, 46% of these people had less doctor visits.
A lot of research has been published on how the pandemic may increase the risk of disordered eating, including major stressors that may induce eating disorders and reduce access to recovery aid. Across both research studies and news articles, a few patterns for the major causes of this epidemic have been identified. Some of these patterns include isolation from support systems, distress about the future, increased health-related anxiety, more time on social media and food insecurity.
An anonymous student shared her story about how the pandemic has affected her mental well-being and has given rise to an unhealthy pattern of eating. She wished to remain anonymous because, while she believes this is an important topic to discuss, she wasn’t comfortable attaching her name to some of the personal details shared in her story.
She explained that her eating disorder stemmed from severe anxiety that affected her appetite. She was previously diagnosed with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which heightened during the pandemic, especially during 2020. Isolation from friends and the removal of many social outlets led to an increase in her symptoms of anxiety and caused her to experience panic attacks.
As pandemic restrictions were lifted and COVID-19 vaccination rates increased, she was able to be more social, which helped reduce her anxiety, but the transition posed different challenges, she explained.
“My OCD is more about thought rumination and feelings of guilt,” she said. “I think as restrictions were lifted and people were starting to see each other more, the moral dilemma became a little difficult because I would get really in my head about potentially exposing somebody. Then I would get stuck on that idea for a long period of time, and my mind would always go to the worst-case scenario.”
This contributed to her distress, which had negative impacts on her physical health, she said. She started feeling constantly nauseous, which resulted in a “complete loss of appetite.”
Talking to someone about your feelings or the symptoms you may be experiencing is one piece of advice that she suggested for anyone struggling with mental health issues. She said that she found an outlet with her mom, whom she would call whenever she was having an especially tough time. However, talking to a professional was also important for her.
“I’m a huge therapy enthusiast,” she said. “I think anyone can hugely benefit from talking to a professional, even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental health problem.”
Makena Diehl, a fourth-year nutrition major, said that she also experienced disordered eating that stemmed from a high-stress environment. She said that she experienced periods of disordered eating throughout high school because of her involvement in ballet, among other factors. Diehl said that ballet is known to support a culture of intense competition and can lead to disordered eating among many dancers as they strive toward the image of the “perfect” ballet body and endure hours of demanding exercise.
She found that some difficult college courses fostered a similar competitive environment. Diehl said that she was so focused on doing well in school that the competitive and comparative mindset that had fueled some of her earlier disordered eating returned.
“It’s never about the food,” Diehl said. “It’s always something else that turns into an eating disorder.”
Unlike some others’ stories, Diehl said that the pandemic probably saved her. She struggled with disordered eating throughout her second year in 2019 and early 2020, before the pandemic forced her to return home in March 2020. She said that going home allowed her to “look in the mirror and actually see the difference” in her appearance and patterns.
“When it was happening, I had no idea that I was struggling,” Diehl said. “But then when I could take a step back and actually focus on myself, it was like that time [at home] made me realize what I had to prioritize.”
Part of what forced her to face her struggle with disordered eating was her parents’ involvement.
“It’s so hard for a friend to say to you, ‘Are you okay?’ but your parents are going to say it straight-up,” Diehl said.
After going home, Diehl was diagnosed with an eating disorder and began seeing a therapist and a nutritionist to help in her recovery. Diehl said that she saw changes to her energy, mood and relationships once she began her recovery journey.
“I saw more people gravitate toward me because I was smiling again, and I had my personality back,” Diehl said. “I feel like that just pushes you to want to heal and be better.”
Now, Diehl said that as she is further along in her recovery process, she is able to enjoy her life more by fueling her body and finding balance. Something that has stuck with her throughout her recovery is the phrase, “Every body’s different.”
This has a dual meaning, she said — it can mean everybody or every body. Regardless, she finds it a helpful reminder for herself and anyone else who may be struggling with body image issues.
Fetter tries to teach this message in her nutrition classes. She said that she gets a lot of students in her classes that say they want to lose weight or cut body fat, but she tries to teach them that there’s “more to food than calories,” and that food is necessary to fuel everyday activities.
“I really try to talk about size diversity,” Fetter said. “All of us are built differently. We’re all meant to look differently, and we have a different optimal body composition for our own unique needs.”
Fetter said that one of her goals is to identify students who may be struggling with disordered eating and refer them to resources on campus, including registered dieticians and counselors in UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services, that offer help. The university also offers individual or group therapy for students experiencing disordered eating and has information online about eating disorders and weight stigma for anyone who wants to learn more.
There are also anonymous ways of getting help, such as NEDA’s helpline, which includes options for calling, texting or messaging online. All of these resources offer life-saving help for those experiencing disordered eating. Fetter said that anyone who believes that they or someone they know might be struggling with disordered eating should reach out to these resources.
“My number one piece of advice would be to talk to a trained professional,” Fetter said
Resources can be found embedded throughout the online version of this article.
Written by: Maya Shydlowski — email@example.com